July 28, 2009

Mindfulness and Consumption, where does it end?

In a recent blog post concerning mindfulness and our consumption of food, I asked readers to consider ways in which we can be mindful as consumers. Tricycle blog reader Alan, building on the initial question, posted the following:

Your question, "is it possible to remain mindful of all that we consume?” has a simple answer: No. Consider the *simple* act of posting this message: I have no clear idea as to the environmental costs of computer manufacture, internet usage, etc., nor can I, but I consume anyway. That said, I think your question makes an excellent point because so much of the advice we are given, “be mindful about consumption,” might seem to imply otherwise.

Perhaps a better approach would be to ask, “Given that full mindfulness of all that we consume is impossible, how can we approach consumption most skillfully? Towards what aspects of consumption should we direct our minds and hearts

Is striving to give full mindfulness to all the we consume really impossible? If so, what areas of consumption do we abandon and what areas do we direct our mindfulness towards?

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Karl Moser's picture

Mindfullness is the simple act leading to discriminating wisdom. Through being mindful of our consumption, whether it be thought forms, food or other consumptive habits we learn to consider the consequences of our actions. Imaging the enormity of the problem only helps with the consideration of the action. As we realize our emptiness or interconnectedness and thus entertain our conditioning less we can find a balance. A balance between our intrensic needs and our willingness to let go our conditioned desires. Each mindful act results in, however seemingly small, a lessening dependency of the tug of our desire to be fulfilled by things. Each mindful act encourages our wisdom to grow.

Tyler Poulson's picture

I agree with Alan's assertion that it's likely impossible to be fully aware of all the effects of consumption. That being said, I think we both feel it is a worthy endeavor to try and understand more.

I saw an insightful movie (Food, Inc.) this week which helped connect more of the dots in my understanding of the food production process in America. Similarly, there is a free 20 minute film on the web (The Story of Stuff) which presents a broader story of the life of goods we consume. Readers may find the below links helpful in their pursuit of more mindful consumption.

http://www.foodincmovie.com/

http://www.storyofstuff.com/

Erik's picture

Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate response. That you are not able to give "clear directions regarding Earth-friendly consumption" ought not to stun you, especially when we realize that numberless causes and effects bring us the present moment. So, to imagine that such complexity could be reduced to a set of clear directions is, well, imagination, the work of the mind.

Where to look then for direction if it is not forthcoming from without? It must be from within.

Who is it that wants? What is this want? How do I experience this want? When do I experience this want? Who is experiencing this want? Where is the reality of the want?

The "clear direction" approach is appealing. It can be articulated, communicated, replicated, and pointed to as authoritative. In these ways, were they to be realized, clear direction would simplify life.

But the moment we begin to design this clear direction we have already failed, and what we had hoped would prove simple, or simplifying, proves incomprehensibly difficult. This itself is instructive.

When we look within, or instruct others to do so, we find the emptiness of (by which I do not mean the vacuousness of) consumption, and the universe from beginningless time to infinite future is immediately affected by mindful, moment-by-moment actions.

And so we can go beyond consumption, and we can go beyond "going beyond" consumption and not make either into something that we need to attain.

Alan Shusterman's picture

I'd like to clarify my emphatic "No" just a bit.

What I believe is truly impossible to fathom are the myriad environmental, technological, economic, social, political, etc., connections that are entailed by consumption in a high-tech society. Remember the "plastic or paper" controversy at the grocery checkout line? Or the shock you may have felt when you discovered that New Zealand lamb chops sold in Great Britain might have a smaller carbon footprint than "local" chops? Indeed, many of my dharma friends are truly dismayed when they discover that flying off to a mindfulness retreat might (depending on its location) do more to cause global warming than replacing their Prius with a Hummer for their daily commute. I've been teaching these topics to college students for several years now and I'm stunned by my inability to give them clear directions regarding Earth-friendly consumption.

That said, there is at least one aspect of consumption where mindfulness can help a great deal: in discovering and responding to our feelings towards consumption. OK, I don't know how many gallons of water will be polluted to make a flat-screen TV, but I can ask myself, "who is it that wants this TV?" and maybe make a more Earth-friendly decision about the size of the screen.

Finally, in reference to Barbara's wise comment: I agree that there are individual aspects of consumption, but there are universal aspects too. I think my claim regarding our limited knowledge about the impacts of consumption is a universal aspect, but even in this area, some individuals will know more or less than others (and we all have a lot to learn).

Barbara Cary's picture

Consumption is different for each individual. B. Cary